lauri-volpi parallel voices

Parallel Voices
by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi
New English translation by Daniele D. Godor
Published 2022
Softback, 263 pages
Includes 2 CDs
Edizioni Bongiovanni

Parallel Voices is an English translation of the third and definitive 1977 edition of Voci Parallele, first published in 1955, by the famed lirico-spinto tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, who had a long and brilliant international career and was renowned not only for his voice but for his forthright and uncompromising opinions on singers and singing.

He himself had a voice of enormous power with a fast, shimmering vibrato, extraordinarily easy, penetrating top notes up to top D, impeccably clear diction and a highly accomplished technique permitting him to sing mezza voce and diminuendi with great elegance. He sang a wide range of roles, from bel canto Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini to Otello and retained much of his voice until his death in 1979 aged 86, although later recordings from the 1950s onwards do not by any means convey the beauty and magnitude of his tenor at the zenith of his powers.

The substantial foreword by the translator, Daniele Godor, helps put the book and its author in context, starting with the fact that Lauri-Volpi’s style was erudite and allusive, placing an extra burden upon the translator. He explains that the title of the book is derived from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in that Lauri-Volpi borrowed his technique, in this case pairing singers rather than historical personages “to compare them and to bring out certain common traits, virtues and failings.” He considers over two hundred singers active over a period of two hundred years of opera; each pair is linked by being of the same vocal category apart from a few “isolated voices”. Many of them were singers of whom Lauri-Volpi had had first-hand experience, but in the third edition he added commentaries on singers he had heard only on record. This in itself is enough to intrigue any lover of opera but the reader must be aware of his biases and limitations; thus he mentions Wagnerian singers only if they also sang the Italian repertoire, which means a huge swathe of great singers are ignored and anyone who loves the voice will come up with a personal list of omissions, beginning with singers such as Emmy Destinn,  Emma Eames and Pol Plançon, while Björling, Vezzani, and Flagstad are reduced to footnotes – but to be fair, Lauri-Volpi’s scope was largely restricted to those singers with whom he had a personal acquaintance and he could hardly be blamed for not being absolutely comprehensive; the task would have been too great. Likewise, operatic composers such as Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Mozart merit merely the briefest of mentions. His opinions are decidedly subjective but contain many insights and it is as well to remember that despite a deserved reputation for being vain, prickly and “difficult”, he made as many friends as enemies. Mr Godor has attempted to replicate in English Lauri-Volpi’s erudite Italian style and provided footnotes additional to Lauri-Volpi’s own to explain his more obscure references and supply correctives to any misinformation.

The translation is indeed admirable; as someone who is an editor and has also undertaken some translating myself, I greatly admire his achievement. There are just a few, minor peculiarities and idiomatic errors which I would have thought the secondary editing would have caught; I have no idea what is meant by asserting that Adalgisa should be “sweet-timbered” (page 15) unless it is a misprint for the clumsy but at least comprehensible “sweet-timbred”, the idiom “took the house down” is employed instead of the familiar “brought the house down” and we hear of Schumann’s suicide attempt “dressed only in a pajamas” – only little things, but a native speaker will pick up on them. There are very few typographical errors; the word “she” is missing from the penultimate line of the first paragraph about Carmen Melis on page 47. In general, however, the way the translator also adds notes correcting factual mistakes, such as Lauri-Volpi’s denigration of Eleanor Steber in favour of Licia Albanese and Steber’s supposed exclusion from the role of Madama Butterfly, on page 45, is both helpful to the reader and revealing of the author’s prejudices – such as his grudge against the conductor Victor de Sabata (page 53). Indeed, sometimes the notes are the most interesting part of a section, an example being the account of the sad end to Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay’s life (page 139).

Given the number of singers he references, I obviously cannot comment on even a fraction of Lauri-Volpi’s observations, but can touch on just a few and give some idea of the contents here. Sometimes the parallels are revealing and sometimes they seem either arbitrary or wilfully inapt. For instance, I can see no particular connection between Tebaldi and Muzio, and Barrientos and Galli-Curci are paired, but to my ears the latter is considerably more appealing – although obviously I am relying on recordings which Lauri-Volpi condemns as “commercial, industrialized fraud.”

He is hard on the opportunism of American soprano Marion Talley who, he claims, bypassed proper vocal foundation in favour of quick fame and foundation – yet I can her from her recordings exactly what he means; she is unfinished – a work in progress – and he rightly compares her unfavourably with Graciela Pareto. I am, however, on my guard when a singer talks about “mask resonance”; there really is no such thing; it’s in the same category as “head resonance”, which my old voice teacher maintained could exist only if a singer’s brains had been removed – which in itself explains a lot about some singers…but of course we are talking about a subjective sensation not a physical fact. Yet while discussing Chaliapin (page 198), Lauri-Volpi actually refers to “cranial resonators” where the sound supposedly echoes – I think not…

To continue, I hear no similarity at all in the voices of Margherita Carioso and Toti Dal Monte who are paired, but I suppose the point is that Lauri-Volpi’s assertions prompt debate. Names crop up of which I – and, I am sure, most readers – have never heard. One such is Ángeles Ottein (whose name is not properly accented in the text), who to me sounds like Minnie Mouse on helium; you may look her up and listen on YouTube, as you may many of the singers here who are not on the two CDs provided. I wonder, too, that he extols Lily Pons but does not mention that she lacked lower register development; indeed, that crucial feature of a properly developed voice is rarely referenced – but then, we are told that he did not like the term register, preferring the term “range” and claiming that “both naturally and technically, the voice is a homogeneous whole” – which is one bold statement and physiologically questionable. Yet he still cites singers’ difficulties with the passaggio and when discussing Maria Caniglia observes that she needed to “balance” and “weld” her “so-called registers” better, and states categorically that “a lack of [proper] register balance can be very harmful to the vocal apparatus”– go figure. Doubts and contradictions abound: while I take his point that recordings can give a deceptive impression of the reality of a voice heard live, it is difficult to believe that what even he calls the “frail, thin” and tremulous soprano of Gemma Bellincioni could have made a successful Santuzza. Eyebrows will be raised at his claim that Renata Scotto had “perfect” technique and that Joan Sutherland’s voice was “light”. I am puzzled by the erroneous and unkind account of the curtailment of Gina Cigna’s career, that she “literally lost her voice” and “was buried in oblivion”, when it is well known that a car accident and heart-attack shortened her career and she went on to teach some important singers, dying in 2001 aged 101 – but Lauri-Volpi is given to hyperbolical assertion and, as the notes tell us, is often creative with the truth when he wishes to discredit a rival or reinforce a contentious point. He is particularly disingenuous in glossing over by omission his support for Mussolini and attempting to paint Gigli as the Fascists’ tenor. Having said that, he could be generous, concealing the fact told to us in the notes that he contributed substantially to the cost of the serious abdominal surgery which curtailed Mexican mezzo-soprano Fanny Anitua’s career.

And so it goes; he is invariably provocative but in general more generous towards sopranos than tenors…I wonder why! His tribute on page 35 to his own wife, Maria Ros, in abandoning her career to further his, is touching – and odd, as he refers to himself in the third person, like Julius Caesar. His admiration for Ponselle, Caniglia and Jeritza emerges via vignettes and purple-prose descriptions such as this of the latter: “This blonde Czech was a sensational singer. When she walked past, she left an air of gold dust, cerulean blue and mother of pearl. Tall and slim, with a resolute gait, she loved to show off her lustrous, wavy hair and azure blue eyes.” Yet he is excoriating about Jeritza’s on-stage “histrionics” designed to “resonate with those ignorant audiences who are oh so easily excited.”

I must emphasise that an aspiring singer is unlikely to derive from this book much of any practical use or guidance; its interest lies in the author’s reminiscences and the revelation of his own psyche. As Daniele Godor says, “Voci Parallele…is no handbook of vocal technique”; there are some useful aperçus regarding “phonation, emission, the handling of the passaggio, breathing technique, placement, projection, register balance and so on,” but in truth, Lauri-Volpi’s philosophy remains nebulous beyond some very general remarks about “the metaphysics of the voice” and “psychological phonation” (whatever that is). A couple of principles, however, are consistent: he bemoans singers who are all technical perfection and no soul and is repeatedly unforgiving about singers who do not take care of their bodies and run to fat.

I am delighted that he is so enthusiastic about “proper” mezzo-sopranos with cavernous lower registers such as Gabriella Besanzoni and reminds us of what often seems to be a vanished race. I think his analysis of Conchita Supervia’s unique voice and its shortcomings is especially perceptive, but this book is a frustrating admixture of the quirky and the trenchant; for every insight there is a conundrum.

You would expect the tenor section to contain the most waspish remarks and indeed, there are some: “Trantoul has a weak, pale voice” – and although it sounds anything but that if we listen to his previously unreleased recording of “Che gelida manina” (CD 1, track 14), Lauri-Volpi would doubtless say that is a product of the recording process and not a reflection of the reality in an opera house. Nonetheless, he sounds tremendous. How Lauri-Volpi can write so much about Roberto Stagno to the detriment of Tamagno, when there are no recordings of his voice, is a mystery, especially as he is fond of linking poor health, illicit breath control, over-exertion of the lungs and forcing with the early demise of singers and Stagno died comparatively young at 57. As such, Lauri-Volpi’s analysis of the cause of Caruso’s early death is certainly interesting – and possibly entirely valid; who knows? He is right, too, when he points out things like that despite being a great singer, Caruso’s Neapolitan rival de Lucia distorts the vowel on top notes, concluding “Recondita armonia” with “Tosca, se te!” rather than “tu”; it’s a fault. On the other hand, he justly praises tenors of whom I had barely heard of, if at all, and will introduce the reader to great singers who should be better known and remembered, such as Bernardo de Muro and Frances Viñas (both on CD 1) – and I was tempted by Lauri-Volpi’s description of him to revisit Alessandro Cortis on YouTube and be reminded that his tenor was a real stand-out instrument.  Conversely, to my ears Hipólito Lázaro’s bleating vibrato is absurd, despite the quality and security of his top notes. Advice to Aragall and Pavarotti that “[b]oth tenors should keep their hands off Verdi” might provoke a wry smile but Lauri-Volpi is correct in predicting trouble ahead for Carreras if he continued to “open the sounds” and persist on “faulty technique” – just as he is right about Di Stefano’s eventual vocal trials.

The section on baritones is considerably shorter and that on basses shorter still. By and large, Lauri-Volpi is more generous in his comments about them; after all, they were never the competition. The last eight tracks of the first CD and the first nine of the second CD are all dedicated exclusively to baritones and bear witness to their extraordinary quality; typically contrary, however, Lauri-Volpi calls Scotti’s voice “dry wooden and dull” then lauds his acting prowess and explains that Americans heard his baritone as “golden, flowing and sonorous”! A good many words are devoted to discussing Titta Ruffo and his so-called “epigone” Gino Bechi – and the dangers of nasal singing, but, as before, some of the most engaging content comes in Mr Godor’s notes, such as his anatomisation of the reasons behind Lauri-Volpi’s animosity towards America, Americans and Lawrence Tibbett in particular. The roster of basses is indeed short but includes some great names, up to Nicolai Ghiaurov and Ruggero Raimondi, now over 80 and one of the few singers discussed in this book who are still with us. That those discussions about basses are fewer and more perfunctory perhaps reflects Lauri-Volpi’s own areas of expertise and experience – and where he got the idea that Wotan is a role for a basso profondo is anyone’s guess – again, the notes offer a corrective.

The final pages are reflections on six “isolated Voices” – including  Maria Callas and his own – and three essays entitled “Singing Methods”, “A Short History of Singing” and “A Crisis of Bel Canto?” I cannot really fathom why Victoria de los Ángeles (she, too, should have the diacritical mark on the “A” not in this text) belongs there, but Lauri-Volpi makes a brief case, while breezily asserting that she was primarily a concert artist (yet, as the notes point out, she appeared 139 times at the Met and recorded twenty complete operas). In truth, I find much of these essays to be rhetorical rather than substantive, but all contain nuggets of wisdom – and much which is polemical.

The two CDs included contain 48 tracks featuring of some of the most important singers Lauri-Volpi discusses, arranged in their parallel pairings. The last is of his own voice, a live, 1930 recording of the aria “O muto asil del pianto” from Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell, (the Italian version of the original French “Asile héréditaire” from Guillaume Tell) – and very impressive it is, too, poor though the quality is. (Unfortunately, the tracklist in the back of the book confuses the order of tracks on CD 2: the Borghese-Silveri pair come first, in tracks 2 and 3, not 4 and 5; they are swapped with the Galeffi-Guelfi tracks which are numbers 4 and 5, not 2 and 3.) Those recordings date from as far back as 1904 and are, of course, mostly acoustic and electronic 78s but three are from the 1950s and thus presumably recorded on tape. They are replete with beauties; the brief clip of Corelli is superb and the doublet of Ponselle and Caniglia is particularly impressive, illustrating the depth of their lower “ranges” and their ability to infuse their singing with drama and “face”. The extract from Aida illustrating Pertile’s voice with Nini Giani as Amneris must have been “previously unreleased” for good reason, because it is really of such poor quality as to be next to unlistenable.

It is hard to sum up the character of Parallel Voices. It is not a manual or a treatise or a reference book, or an autobiography or history. It is, however, wide-ranging, often perceptive, engaging and provocative – but also at times maddeningly prejudiced, vague and untruthful – although the notes certainly help the reader sort the wheat from the chaff. You won’t read another book about operatic singing anything like it.

Ralph Moore

Availability: Bongiovanni